The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 52

 

Cat never knew that a thousand men could be so quiet. The legion’s marching column was slumped low, armed and equipped as they waited for their orders. The sky overhead was slate grey, time marked only by the brief showers of light rain.

Rosa’s group was at the head of the line, the other champions and ‘empowered’ warriors scattered throughout the line. At the moment, they were in a shallow gulley that had once been a road. Trees grew tall and thick on either side of them, seeming to lean in over the road and block out the pale sky.

Hanne moved to the head of the column, leaning in to meet Cat and Rosa.

“You know the plan?” She asked, and both of them nodded.

“You move forward, we’ll be behind you but you need to keep ahead. Keep in contact, Hildegard and Turi will mark your progress.”

“Understood,” Rosa said. Hanne leaned in, pulling Cat towards her by the shoulder and kissing her on the forehead. “I don’t like this plan. I don’t like putting you in harm’s way, Catarina.”

“I can do this,” Cat said, and she felt Rosa clap her on the back.

“We’ll get her to the top,” Rosa smiled. “We’re all in this together.”

“Right,” Hanne nodded. “Then…good luck, God bless you all. Now forward!”

The six of them, Cat, Rosa, Torleif, Gisela, Megame, and Nicomede, rushed ahead down the road side by side. All of them could feel the gentle slope in the land and they knew this was it. The final climb up the bald mountain.

“Second Legion!” Cat heard Hanne’s voice echoing behind them. “Split column! Pull forward! March!”

The plan was in motion. There might be just shy a thousand legionnaires, but a block column wouldn’t hold against an army of monsters. They needed to fight smart, and that meant dispersing into smaller more mobile groups. The legion, like a synchronized machine, split itself into its Centuriae before those split again. Groups consisting of two contubernium spread out in all directions, each consisting of around twenty men trained to fight together and coordinate with other groups.

That was the key, Hanne had told them. To be quick, to be mobile, and to keep in constant communication. Fortifying positions against dragons and giants was a futile effort at best.

Cat glanced up as she heard the sound of great wings beating and saw Pegasus fly through the air above, the winged horse carrying Hilde and Turi ahead of the Legions to scout the enemy as they approached. All around them Cat could see the legionnaires running; occasionally she spotted someone she knew, a champion leading them or a familiar face from the field. All of them were putting everything on the line to get them here, to put her on top of the mountain.

The forest was too thick and the Brocken too low to see the mountain peak itself, but Cat could still feel it looming over her like a shroud. Her feet felt heavy, and she began to lose pace a little with Rosa. She hadn’t magically reinforced herself yet, keeping everything in reserve until the final battle.

“Cat-chan,” Cat felt Megame grab her hand, and she passed a small scroll of paper into her fingers. Just by grasping it, Cat felt rejuvenated, her body growing lighter as she quickly caught back up to Rosa. Looking at her hand, she could see it was one of Megame’s charms, the Omamori. Megame had worked for hours each day writing more of them, the names of dozens of kami written across them. Renewed and rejuvenated, Cat could easily match pace with the champions.

“Town ahead,” Nicomede called. He kept the vanguard, his shield on his arm, as he spotted for them.

“That would be Schierke,” Gisela said, bow over her shoulder. “We’re about seven kilometers out.”

Gisela placed a hand to her ear, and when she spoke next all of them could hear her voice echoed in their ears. “Salvatore, how does Schierke look?”

“Not good,” All of them could hear Turi. Most of the champions, Guardsmen, and Cat had been given a small artifact worn in the ear. It was more or less a microphone and speaker powered by magic courtesy of Evangeline.

“There’s a lot of movement between the buildings and…ah damn, movement up high. They’re coming off the mountain.”

All of them glanced up save for Nicomede who kept his eyes forward, at the edge of the sky. From the north, they could see shapes moving against the clouds, great wings flapping as they swiftly drew closer.

“Salvatore, Report!” Hanne ordered over the line.

“Drakes, lesser dragons, all kinds of demons with wings. Can we get some arrow cover if we pull back?”

“Negative, Turi, we’re still moving forward. You’ll be on your own. Don’t get in too deep.”

“Salvatore,” Gisela said. “Keep in line of sight of us. I can offer some supporting fire.”

“Don’t fall behind, Gisela,” Rosa said. “We need to keep moving”

“I won’t,” Gisela said.

“Much obliged, Gisela,” Turi said, and they could see Pegasus swoop in low towards them again.

The air was beginning to fill with noise. Growls and distant roars rolled in from the trees. Shrieks from the drakes and flying monsters echoed through the skies as they drew closer.

“Rosa!” Torleif said, needing to pump her legs extra hard to keep pace with them. “When can we do Hammer, Lance, and Sword?”

“We need to get closer,” Rosa said. “We need a lot of clearance and we need to be in the thick of it.”

“The other end of Schierke will do,” Gisela said. “Otherwise debris can be an issue.”

“Can I just say we never practiced that?” Nicomede asked. “And didn’t Hanne say something about “Too much risk”?”

“Today is kind of a high-risk high-reward kind of day,” Rosa said. “Megame, you in?”

“I-I think it can work!” Megame said.

“Up above!” Gisela shouted, and all of them could see as the first of the massive drakes came down on them. Cat remembered them from Sicily, enormous winged wyverns, smaller than dragons but nearly the size of a small plane they could easily lay waste to entire teams.

Gisela paused for only the briefest moment, bracing herself as she drew her bow. In a flash of the arm she drew and nocked an arrow, pulled it back, and released it, burying the onyx-black shaft in the drake’s heart to leave it to spasm wildly before it fell from the air. She didn’t waste a moment, however, hurrying to keep pace with them.

They saw another fly towards the legion, only to be intercepted by the flash of white that was Pegasus, Salvatore’s spear slashing across its wing and sending it flailing to the ground. No sooner had that one fallen, however, then had two more taken its place, hurtling through the air in pursuit of Pegasus. The drakes were quick, but the winged horse was quicker, darting gracefully this way and that as Turi tried to lure more of the winged monsters away from the vulnerable ground forces as he brought them out of sight over the trees.

“Aaah, damn this red one is quick,” Turi said. “Need some help from the ground.”

“Pull west, Turi,” Aurelio’s voice came over the line. “I’ve got an arrow for it.”

Cat heard a roar that was suddenly snuffed out, and the trees beside the road burst outwards as the body of a massive red drake crashed into the street before them, a long silver arrowshaft embedded in its throat.

The six of them ran past it, undaunted as they rushed down the street towards Schierke. The woods on either side of them opened as the first buildings came into view. But with them came the full weight of their resistance. The town was crawling with a menagerie of beasts. Great black-furred wolves stood on the rooftops, giants strode among the trees, and massive serpents slithered along the streets.

“Slow here,” Rosa said. “Wait for the signal from the legions.”

Together, the six of them slowed, Nicomede at the front flanked by Rosa and Torleif with Cat, Gisela, and Megame in the rear.

There was a brief moment of quiet, a silence over the town as more and more pairs of monstrous eyes fell upon them. No birds, no leaves, not even the wind could be heard as they stood, creeping forward towards the town.

A roar unlike any Cat had heard outside her nightmares echoed down the nightmares. It was a single bellowing bestial roar, yet at the same time there was an unnatural reverberation, a sound echoed by a thousand screaming voices. The unmistakable roar of Nidhoggr.

The battle had begun.

The monsters charged, the closest rushing towards their position. From the trees and ridges around them another shout reverberated, this one coming on the lips of a thousand legionnaires as the first of the groups broke the treeline from all directions.

This had been the plan. Attack from all direction, pull their attention away from a single point and keep moving to give Cat and Rosa’s squad the mobility they needed to keep going forward. The monsters charged in all directions, engaging whatever group was closest to them as the chaos began to descend. Cat saw a group of Roman soldiers leap to either side as a giant ran through them, getting back to their feet with spears in hand as they stabbed at its legs. On her other side, she saw the glittering brass of Evangeline’s largest automaton leading another group, raising its enchanted shield against the corrosive breath of a massive wyrm.

“Now! Charge!” Rosa shouted, and the six of them broke forward to meet the charging monsters.

A great wolf lunged at them, only for its skull to be shattered by Torleif’s hammer loosed from her hand, the weapon circling back in an arc to return to its wielder. A massive boar with quills like stone and eyes of fire bullrushed them, only to be stopped dead in its tracks by Nicomede’s shield, his lance and Rosa’s spear extinguishing its eyes as the tips drove through its head.

They never paused for longer than a second, doing all they could to keep their momentum going as they ran through the ruined streets of Schierke. Houses had been collapsed by monsters and overgrown with dark forest, and each shadow seemed to hide some new horror that leapt at them.

Cat’s sword cut clean through what could only described as an enormous burrowing worm that had broken through the hardened earth, splattering the ground with its vile black ichor while the blade itself remained shining silver. A beast that looked half-man half-bat leapt from a nearby rooftop down on them, only to be vaporized by a lance of sunlight summoned from one of Megame’s charms.

“Keep moving!” Rosa shouted, spear glittering as it cut through a line of skeletal footsoldiers. “Don’t stop for anything!”

Screams broke through the air, mixing with the shouts and roars, and Cat turned to see Roman soldiers dashed across the trees as the tail of a lesser dragon tossed them like so much straw. Cat reflexively moved towards them, only for Gisela to grab her shoulder.

“Keep moving,” Gisela said, and while she had her usual hard-eyed expression, her words weren’t malicious. “We need to keep moving, Cat.”

“R-right…” Cat said. All of them were fighting to kill Nidhoggr, to get her to the top of the mountain. People were dying for it.

Cat broke into a flat run again, the others moving with her.

Street by street, they moved through Schierke, fighting for every alley and lane as they moved. The air above them was thick with drakes, too many for Turi and Pegasus alone to deal with as they began to swoop down upon the Legionnaires.

“Turi, the twenty-seventh is being torn apart! We need those drakes off of them!” Hanne shouted over the line.

“Can’t shake them all, General!” Turi shouted. “Too many up here.”

“Permission to pull a Michael Maneuver, General?” Hildegard asked over the line.

There was a brief pause before Hanne replied. “Affirmative, Hildegard.”

Cat could almost hear Hildegard giggle over the line. “This is my stop, Turi. Bank here.”

Overhead she could see Pegasus bank hard to its right, wings nearly vertical as Hildegard leapt from its back. In a flash of light, a pair of burning wings erupted from Hildegard’s back and she fell like a meteor onto the closest drake. Cat could see the lick of flame where Stahlzan cut through its neck, decapitating the monster as Hildegard flew to the next one.

She flew to the ground in a long sweeping arc, cleaving through no fewer than twelve drakes before swooping out of sight to relieve the men on the ground.

“There’s a lot of them in the sky…” Torleif said, trailing off.

“We’re almost there,” Gisela said. “The next road leads onto the Goetheweg. We can follow those trails up the mountain to the Brocken’s peak.”

“Right…” Rosa glanced briefly around, spotting a field that was empty save for the ruins of what had been a small mountain resort.

“This’ll do!” From the field they could see the rest of the town down the slope. The air was a mess of drakes and flying monsters, and the ground itself seemed to move and shift with the number of beasts that filled them. Cat stared, the legion couldn’t last long like this.

“Nico! Brace your spear in the ground! Torleif, one hand on his spear, one hand on your hammer. Megame, charm in both hands, one on the hammer one on the spear! Gisela, Cat! You two and I keep them covered!”

No sooner had she said that then a giant lumbered into the field from the trees nearby. Gisela nocked another arrow, aiming down the shaft before letting it fly, the arrow embedding itself in the thick skin of the giant’s neck. It stumbled briefly, but only seemed to get angry as it broke into a lumbering run, ground quaking beneath it.

As Cat ran with Rosa to intercept it, she could see Nicomede, Torleif, and Megame get into position. The tip of Nicomede’s spear was pointed into the sky at an angle, grasped by both Torleif and Megame, who were both holding Torleif’s hammer in their other hands. A scroll ran from Megame’s right hand to her left, covered in a long string of calligraphy. Cat had asked what kami’s name could possibly be that long, and Megame had told her that when calling on the power of one of the great Okami, one needed to include a lot of titles.

Cat ran ahead of Rosa straight for the giant as more arrows landed in its face and chest, blinding it with pain and blood as it charged wildly. A path of frost formed between its legs and Cat ducked low as she fell into a slide, gliding down the line of ice and between the giant’s legs, her sword swinging in a broad slash as she cut clean through the giant’s hamstrings. Instantly it fell to its knees, only for its stomach to fall squarely on the tip of Rosa’s spear, letting a fountain of blood fall from its abdomen. Rosa pulled her spear back, only to swing it around in a long arc to cut through the giant’s neck, letting it fall to the ground.

“Good job, Cat,” she smiled at her.

“Team effort,” Cat smiled back before looking at the other trio, still gathered in a circle. The spear, hammer, and scroll had all begun to glow with white light, Torleif and Nicomede with their eyes closed in an expression of deep concentration, Megame chanting under her breath.

The sky overhead darkened, the clouds growing black as the first echoes of thunder rolled across the sky.

“Turi,” Rosa said over the line. “Get down low, clear out of the sky. Now!”

Hammer, Lance, and Sword. That was what Megame had called it when she’d proposed the idea. The first maneuver that truly combined the power of not only multiple champions, but the power of a trio of gods from across pantheons, all with similar domains. The light between them grew and grew, blinding all else until it was difficult to even look at them. The sky itself seemed to quake, the air growing thick with static and the scent of ozone until, finally, in a single terrible flash the sky itself seemed to tear apart.

First came the Hammer, the thunder, a wave of colorless force that ripped through the air over the town of Schierke like a windborn tsunami, flattening the tops of trees and ripping up monster and drake alike in its wake with a sound that could shatter glass. Through the deafening roar, one could almost hear the roaring battle cry of Thor as the thunder of Mjolnir smashed through the sky.

Then came the Lance, and here Cat had to shut her eyes as the sky itself seemed to be replaced with pure white light. A lightningbolt unlike any seen on Earth since prehistory cracked across the sky, branching like a massive tree in a thousand different directions, impaling every monster left in the sky and scores more on the ground in spears of electricity that shuddered and flashed, missing the human legionnaires unscathed but thoroughly unnerved as the air itself came alive with the wrath of Zeus, his divinely-forged thunderbolts seeking out every target in sight.

Finally came the Sword, a single razor-edged wind that cut from heaven to earth, splitting the great clouds open to banish the darkness and cut through the last remaining monsters out in the open in a single mighty slash, the leaves and grass itself for a kilometer around cut through by the finest edge, wielded by the greatest Okami of the Summer Storm Susanoo-no-Mikoto.

As the sun shone down from the rend in the heavens, the trio collapsed to their knees, gasping for breath.  A champion was strong, blessed by their gods, but the three of them together had just called on the full strength of three of the greatest Storm gods on earth. Hurriedly, Rosa, Gisela, and Cat moved to help them up, Cat getting Megame back to her feet.

“I-I think Susanoo-sama enjoyed that,” Megame smiled wearily. “A chance to show off to these foreign Okami.”

“Well, Zeus said I earned a favor, and he needed to make sure that the King of the Gods was still known this far north,” Nicomede smiled, a hint of pride in his voice.

“That was so COOL!!” Torleif shouted, all but leaping back to her feet. “Did you see Thor!? He was all ‘KRACKA-BOOM!!”

Cat smiled, her eyes moving out over the town. The legion had won a reprieve. While that had been only a small fraction of Nidhoggr’s army, it had cleared the town, and that gave the legion a terrain advantage. Now the streets, alleys, and buildings of Shierke were theirs to hold and fight from.

Gisela and Megame had conspired the maneuver together. Megame had long supported cross-pantheon cooperation, and it had been Gisela who had seen the synchronicity. Thor, Zeus, and Susanoo were all storm gods, and more than that they were all renowned dragon-killers. Even an army of monsters would be laid low by a strike delivered by all of them combined.

Cat had wished that the gods themselves could have fought on their side, but Nora and Gisela had warned against it back in Rome. If the Gods were fighting here on foot, then the battle would operate on an entirely different level. The legion and Cat would have been ants beneath the feet of gods and monsters.

“Alright dust off you three,” Rosa said. “Good job, but we’ve still got half a mountain to climb.”

“Three kilometers,” Gisela said.

“Right,” Cat nodded, and she led the charge this time, hurrying uphill from the field.

As they moved towards the trees, marking the edge of the town and the beginning of the wild mountain, the air before them seemed to warp and shift. As if from nothing itself, a massive wolf appeared before them. Rather than a snarling coarse-furred monster, however, this one had a noble countenance. A pair of vestigial wings sprouted form its back of sleek midnight black fur, and three of its legs had been replaced by artificial limbs of black metal and silver into the shape of a wolf’s slender legs. Most of all, however, Cat recognized the familiar bright blue eyes, the same color as the jewel in her sword’s pommel.

“Angel!” Cat smiled, running up to her.

“The Witches are ready,” Angel said, shrinking in a flash back down to her humanoid form.

“And so are we,” Rosa said.

Angel turned northwards, towards the distant peak of the Brocken.

“Then the mountain, and Nidhoggr, awaits.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 46

 

With every passing day the column of the second legion pushed northwards into Europe, over the alps and into what had been Austria and Germany. Now it was wilderness, wild and untamed with rolling hills fertile grasslands and ever-present forests closing in around them as they cut a trail north.

Their scouts, Hildegard and Turi in particular, kept an eye on the movement of monsters and wild spirits in the area. Those that didn’t try to ambush the Legion (which were swiftly repelled) were soon all seen to be traveling straight north deeper into Germany.

“They’re heading to something,” Hanne said, looking over the map as the legion commanders, Hildegard, Cat, Rosa, Angel, and Gisela all crowded around the command table, a snaking red line marking their passage thus far.

“Agreed,” Hildegard said. “This isn’t coincidence, any monster or spirit that I’ve scouted that was too far out to catch the Legion’s scent has been going in roughly the same direction.”

“Nidhoggr is calling them,” Angel said. “It is attempting to force itself fully into Midgard and wants an army there to greet it. When the Primordial manifests, then all of those monsters will be unleashed in a new tide of destruction.”

“Which means not only do we have the dragon to contend with, but an entire army as well,” Rosa sighed. “This surprise attack might turn into a siege.”

“And a siege is something we can’t afford,” Hanne said. “This battle can’t last more than a day after we initiate our attack, maybe just hours. We need to establish a line wherever Nidhoggr is and hold it while Cat and the others take out the Primordial.”

“But where is it going?” Angel said. “Nidhoggr’s influence is blocking my sight. Everywhere I look, I just see more of the dragon.”

“At a guess,” Gisela said. “Somewhere of ritual importance. This Primordial will want a stage to begin its attack on Earth and it isn’t going to settle for a nameless field outside Leipzig.”

“Any ideas?” Cat asked. “Germany has to be full of places like that…”

“One,” Gisela said. “I think…you said in your dream, when you battled Nidhoggr, it was atop a mountain, and the peak was clear of trees and plants, yes?”

“That’s right,” Cat nodded. “It was just…bare rocks and a lot of snow.”

“That might be our clue,” Gisela said. “The Brocken, Germany’s bald mountain.”

“Near Schierke,” Hanne nodded. “I know of it…I believe it’s around…here.”

Hanne marked a spot on the map to their north, matching the path of the migrating spirits.

“As for when, that is another question but also one I believe easily answered,” Gisela went on. “It’s October now, and I have little doubt that Nidhoggr’s ideal time to manifest and our ideal time to strike will be on the 31st.”

“Halloween?” Rosa asked.

“Two years to the day since the final Day of Revelation,” Gisela said. “A fine anniversary gesture considering it was Nidhoggr’s escape that started it all. The day itself has potency, though not for Nidhoggr’s cosmology…but it represents something that matters. The end of summer, life, and warmth. Nidhoggr comes with the darkening of the year.”

“It’s as likely a day as any,” Hildegard nodded. “That doesn’t even give us a month to cross half of Germany though.”

“We’ll need to march hard,” Hanne nodded. “And the going will only get rougher the closer we get, I have no doubt.”

“A month, northern Germany…a battle at Samhain on the Bald Mountain…that sounds right,” Cat said. “Like something out of a story.”

“The benefit of Primordials is that they are rarely unpredictable,” Angel said. “This is a solid hypothesis.”

“Then that’s the direction we’ll take,” Hanne said. “I want this Legion moving at sunrise and I want the supply train informed of the increased pace. I’ll need the scouts ensuring that we’re on the right path with updates on any sighted monster every third hour. Understood?”

All the assembled nodded, many of them with their faces dark. This was going to be a hard march to an even harder battle. They had a destination now, but not an easy one.

As the group began to depart from the command tent to relay orders to the rest of the legion, Cat caught up to Rosa.

“Hey,” she said. “Do you have a moment to talk, just us?”

“Hmm?” Rosa raised an eyebrow. “Sure, why not.”

With some minor trepidation, Cat led her away from the command tent to the edge of the camp, away from prying eyes and ears among the trees, though still within sight of the fires of the legion camp. Rosa followed along quietly until Cat stopped them, and she crossed her arms as she waited for Cat to speak.

“So, uuh…” Cat shuffled words around in her head, trying to come up with the right thing to say. Rosa stayed quiet, watching her with a sort of blank curiosity that only made Cat sweat more.

“I, ummm…”

“Look, Cat, if this is going to take a while, I can come back or…”

“N-no! Just…give me a second I’m trying to get my words together.”

“I can give you some minutes I just need to-“

“Dammit, Rosa, stop making this hard!”

“Making what hard? You’re the one who-“

“I like you!”

Rosa blinked in surprise for a moment.

“Well uh…yeah I mean I like you too, Cat.”

“No, you…ugh,” Cat ran a hand through her hair before steadying herself. “I mean I want to ask you out and date you and…stuff.”

“Oh…” Once more Rosa stood there in honest surprise, hands at her side. “…Wow you needed to do this whole dramatic confession thing?”

“Eh? What do you mean? Isn’t this how it’s done?”

Rosa snorted, only making the color rush to Cat’s face again. “No, you idiot. Just…like…ask me out. Tell me you want to go have lunch sometime.”

“We always have lunch sometimes!”

“Then tell me you want to go out somewhere and that you want it to be a date is my point,” Rosa rolled her eyes. “Honestly this whole confession thing…man who told you that was a good idea?”

“Ummm…”

“It was Megame wasn’t it?”

“Not just her!” Cat objected.

“Let me guess, most of the relationships you’ve read about involved guys in armor and women described as ‘damsels’.”

“That’s a…bit of an exaggeration…” Cat said, her flustering only growing more pronounced with each passing second. “I also wasn’t sure if…”

“If I was gay?” Rosa asked.

“Well…yeah…” Cat nodded.

“I’m not,” Rosa said.

Cat froze up.

“I’m bi actually. I like both sides of the field.”

Cat struggled to pull a response together as Rosa laughed.

“Seriously your face right now…have you not seen how I stare at Evangeline’s ass? The woman’s a safety hazard.”

“I don’t watch where you’re staring all the time!”

“That’s why you lose our duels half the time.”

“Oh, for the love of-!” Cat stomped forward, pushing Rosa against the closest tree to hold her there. Rosa didn’t resist or make any move to counterattack, simply watching her with an amused expression.

“You’re a jerk, you know that?”

“I do.”

“A complete ass half the time and intolerable the other half.”

“I get that.”

“I’m honestly surprised I like you half as much as I do,” Cat managed to keep her face straight as she stared down Rosa.

“Mmhmm,” Rosa just nodded along.

“But I do like you…I like you a lot especially since you became…”

“Less of an ass?” Rosa suggested.

“Yes,” Cat nodded. “Less of an ass. And especially with everything that’s about to happen…I thought it would be really important to…”

“Come on, Cat,” Rosa’s voice wasn’t impatient or unkind. It was more the tone when she was trying to get Cat to improve during training.

“I want to be with you, Rosa. No matter what happens I want to be at your side and I want to be…closer with you than just friends. Is that…alright with you?”

Rosa stayed quiet for a long time, too long for Cat. The seconds ticked by at an increasingly uncomfortable pace. Before her face finally split into a smile.

“Sure, Cat, that’ll be alright with me. Though you need to work on the straight talk because that confession was way too timid.”

Cat’s face was beat red. “I’m new at this.”

“And you took way too long. Seriously you could’ve asked me out months ago.”

“I get it…”

Rosa kept smiling and Cat felt her hand push up the bottom of her chin.

“That said, you’re going to pay for wasting all that time fretting. Seriously do you know how much training time this probably cost you? No wonder you were so distracted.”

Cat glowered, even as she felt her heart pumping wildly in her chest at Rosa’s touch. She was becoming acutely aware of just how close they were.

“P-pay how?” Cat asked, unable to look away.

“By making up for lost time.”

Before Cat could stop her Rosa had leaned in and for the briefest moment Cat could feel the ghost of Rosa’s lips pressed to hers.

Cat jerked her head back as she felt the color rush to her face in full force. “Wh-what are you-?”

“Just like a duel, Cat,” Rosa smiled at her. “Can’t be timid with me.”

Steeling herself, Cat squared her shoulders before leaning in, a bit forcefully than she’d meant to, and kissing Rosa straight on the mouth.

She wasn’t sure how long they stayed that way, seconds or moments she didn’t know and it didn’t matter. Her heart was thumping like a drum as her mind reeled at the simple fact that in a day, she’d gone from sparring with Rosa to kissing her.

Eventually they did pull apart, and though Cat was still dazed and reeling she could see that Rosa had flushed more than a little as well. Cat wasn’t entirely on the defensive.

“So umm…where do we go from here?” Cat asked.

“Wherever we want,” Rosa shrugged. “There isn’t a manual for this kind of thing, Cat.”

“Heh so…we’re dating now?”

“I guess so…”

“We should probably tell some people.”

“Mmhmm.”

“Though umm…before that…” Cat was about to pause before pushing the awkwardness down and gently shoving Rosa once more against the tree. “Let’s do that a few more times.”

Rosa smiled. “Heh, sounds good to me. You need practice anyway.”

“Says you, you’re terrible at it!”

“Prove it.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

 

Where All Roads Lead

Chapter 34

April 10th, 2024

“So how does this work, exactly?” Cat asked.

The pair of them had moved upstairs to the barren room Hildegard used for her own magic practice. It was little more than blank walls, floors, and ceiling, as the candles and target dummies, as well as jars of material reagents had all been cleared out of it.

“We must enter a dream,” Mary said, stooped over the ground as she traced a circle of fine white ash across the ground. “From there I can lead you into the dream of the Lady Huldra.”

“Right…” Cat nodded along. “But what then? The way you said it made it sound like Nidhoggr was in her mind, not her dreams.”

“Something you must understand,” Mary continued, working even as she spoke. “Is that Huldra is a unique brand of witch, one that occurs very rarely across history and culture. She is a being for which the lines between mortal, witch, and god are all quite thin. Are you familiar with the deity known as Hecate?”

“I think I’ve heard of her,” Cat nodded.

“Hecate is another such ‘True Witch’, in her case she is known as the Unbound Witch of the Crossroads,” Mary said. “What they are and where they come from is…uncertain to say the least. I only know what I do because Lady Huldra created me. They might simply be divine aberrations, those caught in a nebulous place between mortality and godhood, or perhaps they are all merely minor aspects, living incarnations of the great forces of magic. What you need to know, however, is that they are as powerful as they are inhuman.”

“I think I understand,” Cat said. “But it doesn’t answer my question.”

“Lady Huldra is known as the Unsealing Witch of the Dreaming. The separation between her mind and the realm of Dreams is so thin as to be almost nonexistent. She can walk through dreams with a thought, bring order to the chaos between the dreams, and enact the will of dreams upon reality. We can reach her very core through the Dreaming alone.”

“Well, you say it will work,” Cat said. “So I’ll trust you at least.”

Truth be told, she didn’t really understand everything of what she was getting herself into, but she knew enough. Enter the mind of this True Witch and slay the dragon within. If she succeeded, Hildegard would be cured.

She had not asked what would happen if she failed.

“Be seated in the circle,” Mary said, and Cat took a seat, crossing her legs with her sword in her lap. Mary moved to sit across from her, making sure the folds of her long white cloak were within the edges of the circle.

“Normally we would enter your dream, and from there follow a trail of dreams into that of Lady Huldra,” Mary said, checking to make sure the circle was unbroken. “But we are short on time, and I am not an average Oneiromancer, so we are going to…brute-force this somewhat.”

“How exactly?” Cat said nervously, hands tight around the scabbard of her sword.

“I will be using my connection to Lady Huldra to enter her dream directly.”

“Is that…worse?” Cat asked. “Sorry I’m still new to this whole ‘dream walking’ thing.”

“It will be…somewhat disorienting,” Mary said after a moment’s consideration. “But you should be able to fight at full power.”

“Do I get any cool dream powers?” Cat asked eagerly. “Like I have dreams where I can fly, will I be able to fly when I’m there?’

“Probably not,” Mary said. “I will be working against Lady Huldra to keep the dream stable. It will be as…real as I can make it.”

“Why not stack the odds a little?” Cat asked. “These are dreams right?”

“Please bear in mind,” Mary said. “That dreams are highly mutable to both sides, and a nightmare is still a dream. By keeping the dreamscape stable, it ensures that they will not try to gain an advantage either.”

“So how do I keep it stable? Cat asked.

“That is for me to contend with,” Mary said. “Your only duty is to slay the spirit of Nidhoggr within Lady Huldra’s soul. If you attempt to alter the will of the dream on your own, then it will be your willpower measured against Nidhoggr’s as it will try to do the same.”

“Alright, sounds simple enough,” Cat nodded. “I’m ready.”

“Good,” Mary said. “Because I already began the ritual.”

“Wait…what?” Cat said, but even before her words had finished her vision began to blur, her eyelids grew heavy, and a sudden wave of sleep washed over her. She never stood a chance of resisting as her eyes fell shut against her mind’s protest, shoulders slumping as her head nodded, with Mary’s shining turquoise eyes being the last thing she saw before she fell asleep.

She was in a dark forest when she woke up, the trees and bushes around her lit by a pale blue moon that sent its light down in great silver shafts through the treetops. She was still sitting, and she was glad to see her sword was still in her lap. Taking it in her hands, she stood up and looked around, hoping to see some sign of Mary, or anywhere she was supposed to go.

As she looked, the trees before her seemed to open, their trunks and branches bowing outwards to form a path through the trees. As a trail took form, shining turquoise spheres of light appeared in a line above the trail, casting their light down upon the newly-cleared trail.

“Guess I should go this way…” Cat said as she nervously set off down the trail.

There was still no sign of Mary, but she was a dream spirit after all; maybe she was there right now, invisible to Cat. More worryingly, maybe she wasn’t there at all, and Cat was walking right into a trap set up by Nidhoggr and the enslaved Dream Witch. The color of the spheres, however, were the precise shade of blue-green as Mary’s eyes, giving them a reassuring presence. Even if she couldn’t see or hear her, it made her feel as if Mary was close by.

Swallowing the growing fear in her chest, Cat began to walk along the trail.

The path had been level at first, but it soon came to shift upwards until Cat was climbing a winding uphill trail along a mountainside. The trees grew sparser as the wind grew cold, and soon a gentle dust of snow began to fall as she hiked further up the mountain. Time was difficult to factor in. She was still in a dream of sorts so she couldn’t easily determine the passage of minutes or hours. By the time she was nearing the mountain’s peak, it felt simultaneously as if she had spent the better part of a day hiking, and as if she had spent no time at all.

The mountain plateaued at the top, creating a shelf of relatively flat, snow-covered stone that rose above the last of the forest. As Cat cleared the treeline, her breath steady as she worked her way towards the peak, she could see that while the moon was bright, the sky was far from clear.

Great dark forms twisted across the sky, arching from one horizon to the next as they twisted, intersected, and divided above the mountain like a great net that contained the world that met directly above her head. Though a few stars could be seen from the gaps in this colossal barrier, everything within, even the moon, seemed to be held beneath the great dark forms which rose to meet in the sky directly above them. Cat stared up at the great shadows in the sky, and she recalled part of a story that Angel had told her a year before.

There is a great tree that holds the cosmos together, all the worlds are held between its branches, and the stars rest upon its crown. That is Yggdrassil, the World Tree, and its roots had been Nidhoggr’s prison. With this in mind, Cat could see how this great barrier could be the great roots of a cosmic tree. The dragon could escape its prison in body, but the shadow of its mind still lurked there.

She was on the right course.

Catarina drew her sword as she neared the mountaintop. Caeruleamor’s shining silver-white metal seemed to glow with its own light as she drew it, gleaming in the frosted air. Snow crunched under her feet and her breath came in wisps of steam as she rounded a patch of boulders that marked the end of her ascent and arrival at the mountain’s peak.

As it had looked from below, the mountaintop was a broad flat area of stone, covered in a few centimeters of snow that gave it an almost unearthly quality. Standing on the white with nothing around save for the moon, stars, and the roots of the great Tree, it was almost like standing on the surface of an alien moon. She stepped forward, leaving a lonely track of footprints in the snow behind her as she looked out across the horizons and saw the expansive dark forest below.

At the center of the peak, from the darkness in the sky, something began to form. It seemed to draw itself out of nothing, a great bulky body that ripped itself free from between the beams of silver moonlight. Steadily it grew larger and longer, great rolls of dark flesh billowing outwards and resting on the ground, an immense serpentine shape coming into being.

As it drew more of itself into existence, the dark shadow-stuff began to gain definition. Lines began to harden and form into a skeletal visage. Flesh withered as quickly as it formed, leaving great patches of exposed muscle and bone visible across its ever-rotting form. A pair of enormous batlike wings began to spread, their fingers withered away until only scraps of dark flesh remained. Its entire body was corpselike, decaying flesh bound and tied together into the hulking form of a draconic monster.

From the billowing coils, fearsome claws, and great wings a head began to emerge. Rising from the mass of its body, a fearsome serpentine head, scaled skin clinging tightly to sharp bone, stared down at Catarina. It was surrounded by a mane of horns, great spikes that breached the skin where it was drawn too tightly, and from the deep shadows of its eye sockets came a pair of burning cold blue lights.

It was a massive dragon, its length impossible to determine as it coiled and undulated upon itself, but even seeing it now Cat could sense that it was merely a shadow of something larger. The air around it seemed to flicker in a dark haze, shadow smoke rose from its body to make it indistinct and almost transparent in some places. As it emerged from nowhere, the sky itself seemed to grow dark around her. Cat gripped the hilt of her sword tightly with both hands as she stepped forward towards the dragon. It opened its mouth, lined with countless teeth as it spoke.

And they come alone, this little silver thing.

Bright eyed and foreign forged, weak and lost.

In far flung dream they seek, the unseating of a greater being.

Of dragon, death, and rotting root. Of darkness from the deep times drawn.

 

Nidhoggr spoke in a voice that was not its own. The dragon had chewed on the corpses of the slain for countless years and now it spoke with their combined shrieking voices. Its breath was rot itself, as sickening to smell as it was to listen to, and there was an otherworldly echo to it that made Cat’s very bones shake. It was a tremendous voice, powerful and terrifying, forced through the mouth of this dark serpent before her. The message was clear, even if she could not understand the words. She was alone against something far more than a dragon, and even this was but a mere shadow of the real thing.

Cat raised her sword and pointed its edge at Nidhoggr.

“I’ve come to slay you, dragon!” She shouted at it. “So I can free this witch and heal my sister! I won’t be stopped by a serpent like you!”

It sounded a bit flat in her ears as declarations went, though she wondered if it could even understand her. She had heard the words it said before, but the noises it had made weren’t quite right, as if it had been speaking another language entirely and it was the intent, not the words, that had reached her mind.

Among the names of serpents, the striking malice sinks deep.

The poison of the world tree, the devourer of flesh

From the shadow mountains rise, and cold peaks dwell upon

No steel can harry ancient flesh, no mind pursue what dwells within

 

It spoke again in that strange verse-like tone with that same overwhelming voice. From the cruel edge and the hint of dark laughter alone Cat could tell she was being mocked. She doubted she would get much in the way of banter from this monster, but she didn’t need to get it angry. Cat just needed to kill it.

Cat charged forward, sword raised as she kicked up small clouds of loose snow with each step, leaving a trail of wet stone behind as she broke the unperturbed surface of the mountaintop. With an almost casual ease the great tail of the serpent swung out to meet her, a whip-like tendril of shadow and diseased flesh that tore through the air. Cat rolled under it, not slowing down as she drew closer to the beast.

Nidhoggr readied itself, sharp claws digging into the earth as it opened its great mouth, whipping up a great storm of snowflakes as it uncoiled itself. From deep within its gullet came a plume of sickly black and green gas that spread towards her, stinking of death and rot as it spread through the air.

Cat raised one hand, focusing her magic as the snowflakes surrounding them were redirected towards her hand, forming into a barrier that collapsed into steam at her command, creating a gaseous shield that collided with Nidhoggr’s poison breath and forming a massive plume of vapor that filled the mountaintop.

A few great whips of its massive serpentine body cleared the air, dispersing both Cat’s steam and the poison gas harmlessly into the sky. Cat had not stopped running, eliminating the distance between her and the dragon. Magic wasn’t going to kill this monster; she needed to get it in sword range.

Nidhoggr didn’t seem to realize the danger Cat’s sword posed, and it threw all of its great bulk into the next attack, massive coils undulating as it moved to surround Catarina. Claws shattered the stone as it dragged itself along, great wings flapping until they were practically in a snowstorm, all the snow that had been on the ground whipped up into a frenzy around them.

Nidhoggr’s great head pulled back, arching into the striking position of a snake, and Cat readied herself, magic flowing through her body as the slick ground hardened into ice beneath her feet. With a snap of its fangs the dragon struck, head whipping down on her with terrifying speed. Its bulk, however, made it slow enough for Cat to avoid, throwing herself out of the reach of its jaws as her feet slid across the ice with practiced ease. The dragon had missed its strike, and worse still left its chest exposed.

Cat gripped her sword with both hands, pulling it back before driving it with all her might into the creature’s chest of withered muscle and grey sinew. The silver blade, shining with a light of its own, tore through the Nidhoggr’s flesh, and where it cut it left dancing blue lights in its wake.

Nidhoggr screamed with a roar that echoed across the mountain as its body lashed in pain. Cat barely had enough time to pull her sword free and run before she was crushed by the great coils of the writhing serpent, needing to fling herself to the ground to avoid its massive bulk.

The reverberating echo of the Nidhoggr’s roar of pain made her very bones shudder, as if it was screaming with the voices of all the dead it had consumed.

No steel of man or dwarf she swings, this thing of light and mortal flesh

It brings a blade of Urd to bear, biting tooth of burning starlight

Of glossy pinion made and forged, from fallen wing its power plucked

The vicious voice from great tree’s crown, by serpent fang made silent tune

“That’s right!” Cat grinned as she got to her feet. “I’m not some pushover to be thrown around. This sword was made from one of Angel’s feathers! And that means it can hurt even something as powerful as you!”

The great dragon coiled and uncoiled its serpentine body as it prepared for its next strike, tail whipping through the air as it gathered itself together before lunging at Cat, throwing all of its massive weight towards her. Cat steadied herself, taking hold of her sword with both hands as ice began to spread from her feet, covering the mountaintop around her in a thick layer of dangerously slick ice.

Nidhoggr’s coils slid loosely across the ice, but its great claws easily smashed through it to keep itself steady as it swung its long tail towards her. Cat ducked low, bringing her sword up in a fierce upward jab that caught the flesh of the dragon’s tail. The withered muscle and stretched skin burned and sizzled away at the touch of the blade, but it still had the incredible force of the dragon behind it, and Cat was thrown bodily off her feet and sent skidding across the icy ground.

Her hand dragged across the ice, her magic slowing her slide and keeping her steady, but the dragon recovered more quickly than she did. Like the blow of a sledgehammer the dragon’s claws came down on top of her, its massive hand pinning her to the icy ground as its claws dug painfully into her shoulder and side, the massive weight of the dragon crushing down on her ribs.

Her breath was squeezed out of her chest, arms struggling for grip as she saw her sword, thrown from her hand, just out of her reach. As she stretched her arm, fingers trying to reach the end of the pommel, another squeeze from Nidhoggr sent a wave of spasming pain through her as she felt herself being slowly crushed beneath it.

The great jagged maw of Nidhoggr stooped low over her, empty blue eyes staring into her own as it opened its great maw. Its stench sent a nauseating sickness down her throat as she felt it burn and blister against her skin, the withering breath sucking the last of the air from her lungs as it spoke.

Of supple flesh and stitched bone, fragile daughter of Embla

No elder blood or carven name, brought low with just an empty hand

No dragons here stand, only darkness awaits

 

The dragon squeezed its claws again, and Cat screamed as she felt her ribs began to crack, the sharp claws cutting through her meager armor and into her flesh. Still the Nidhoggr spoke, and this time its words came through clearer.

Die and be mine

 

Cat’s eyes stung and watered, her vision hazy from the decaying breath of the dragon, but past its forest of teeth and down its dark maw she saw lights within its throat, burning blue like countless tiny eyes, staring out at her from within its endless stomach.

She was being simultaneously crushed, cut, and suffocated as the dragon drew out her death, but as it drew back its great serpent’s head, jaws open wide, she could see her death fast approaching as it prepared for the kill strike.

Cat tried to summon up what magic she could, reaching into her body’s native aether to cast a spell, any spell, but the battle and the intense pain of Nidhoggr’s crushing claws kept her firm calling up anything more than the weakest sparks.

As Nidhoggr drew itself up to its full height, head arched backwards like a cobra, she thought of what Mary had warned her of. This dream felt all too real, she had reached her very real limits and she had done little more than scratch the dragon. The thought of failure was almost as great a pain as Nidhoggr’s claws. She had come this far and died for nothing, lost in a dream.

Cat’s hands balled into fists. Mary’s rules be damned. This was a dream, she knew it was a dream, and she wasn’t about to be beaten in a dream. She didn’t need to call up her own native aether, she had all the fuel she needed if she desired it.

Nidhoggr’s head came down, bone-like fangs glistening in the moonlight, but as it did a dozen massive spikes of ice rose from the ground to meet it, impaling the jaws of the serpent like glistening blades of crystal. Most of them shattered on impact, unable to breach the Primordial’s hide, but it was enough to stop its strike, and more than that it was enough to loosen the dragon’s grip on her. She reached out as far as she could, stretching her hand to take hold of the hilt of her sword, willing the dream to nudge the sword into her hand.

With the familiar weight of the sword once more in hand, Cat swung it upwards, cutting a gash in Nidhoggr’s leg that caused it to release her as it edged backwards. Cat rolled to her feet, and while she tried to will the dream to dull the pain, it still came through as all too real. Her breath came in ragged pants, her legs shivering and the bloody wounds on her shoulder and side showing no signs of stopping, her face burned and she was still trying to blink the poison from her eyes.

“I’m not about to lose to some rotted out carcass!” She shouted defiantly, trying to buy time as her vision recovered. “Not even a shadow of the real thing! I won’t lose to you in real life and I definitely won’t lose to you in a dream!”

Lost in a dream far from home, the bitter drink of defeat

So far deep in delusion, unable to see the truth

The horns of Ragnarok blow, the Dark Hills empty

Trapped in a place before the World’s end, lost in a dream of the past

Cat’s vision had mostly returned, and she swallowed the pain in her body. Her hands tightened around the pommel of her sword.

“Maybe it is all just a dream,” Cat said. “Maybe none of it really matters. The new Rome we’ve built, the people I’ve helped, the new friends I’ve made…maybe it’s all just one last dream we’re having before the world really ends…but that’s enough for me!”

Cat stepped forward, pointing her sword at Nidhoggr.

“I’ll keep believing in that dream! I believe that the world can come back, better and stronger than it was! I believe that every person I help, every single person I save, will help the world a little more! I believe all of it matters! And more than anything else I believe in what I’m doing, in what I am! Even if it’s just a dream!”

Cat placed her left hand over her heart, feeling it beat even here in the dream. It was her dream to be a hero, to help everyone she could. But hers was one of countless dreams. It had been the dream of the wolves and the citizens of Rome to rebuild their city. It had been the dream of Vittorio in Sicily to see his country rebuilt. It had been the dream of Asha to earn a second chance and follow in Cat’s footsteps.

All of it had been nothing but dreams. But dreams could build cities, and dreams could kill dragons.

Catarina felt a warmth behind her, and the dark sky began to fill with a faint pink and yellow glow as the first rays of dawn approached, banishing the night.

Nidhoggr did not bother with reply, it charged her again, maw first, once more throwing all its weight behind its attack. Cat focused herself, digging her feet into the frozen ground as she braced herself, the coils and wingbeats of the serpent sending up another blizzard of snow as it opened its mouth impossibly wide to lunge forward and devour Cat, but this time she was ready for it.

At the last second, Cat lunged forward, closing the last meter between before driving the tip of her sword into the roof of Nidhoggr’s mouth, its own momentum forcing her entire sword through its jagged skull and piercing the creature’s brain. Her success, however, was short-lived as the colossal weight of the dragon kept moving, its inertia forcing her off her feet as she and the body of the massive black dragon were thrown from the mountaintop.

Cat rolled over stones and down the slope as the undulating body of the Primordial thrashed around her, massive coils smashing against the earth as it fell down the mountainside. Unable to find her footing, Cat fell to, rolling painfully across barren stone and missing the crushing coils of the dragon’s death throws by the skin of her teeth. She just needed a handhold, something to grab onto as her hands clung uselessly to the loose dirt and stones of the mountainside.

Whether by luck or the virtue of the dream she all but crashed into a warped and withered sapling that had taken root in the mountain’s slope. Clinging to it for dear life, Cat watched as the long sinewy body of Nidhoggr crashed into the forest below, toppling trees and shattering stone as  it coiled and uncoiled, its screams echoing across the landscape.

Cat continued to cling to the small tree, one arm and her legs wrapped tight around it as her free hand clung to her sword. As the last of Nidhoggr’s screams faded and silence began to settle across the dream, Cat looked toward the horizon and watched the sun slowly begin to rise, the early morning light banishing the great binding roots of Yggdrassil, leaving the sky clear save for the brightest stars.

“There is a power in dreams.”

Cat turned, almost jumping out of her skin as a figure seemed to simply appear next to her.

She was a tall willowy woman dressed in ornate robes crafted from rich silks with a long cloak of thin fur around her shoulders. She had the same glossy dark hair and blue-green eyes as Mary, but they were older eyes and her hair reached to her waist. She turned to Cat, fixing her shining eyes on her.

“It is rare for me to offer someone my gratitude, rarer still for that someone to be human,” She said. “But nonetheless you have earned it.”

“Ah…Lady Huldra?” Cat said.

“I am,” Huldra nodded. “And thanks to you I am for the first time in years truly myself again.”

“Well…you’re welcome,” Cat said, before adding awkwardly. “Well…i-if you’re grateful, I could use your help with-“

“Your sister,” Huldra nodded, her eyes turning form Cat towards the lightening horizon. “I will see to it that it is done.”

“Thanks…” Cat felt relief wash over her and she joined Huldra in silence staring off into the distance.

“Catarina!” Mary’s familiar voice, mixed for once with shock and surprise came next as the much smaller young woman appeared next to her opposite Huldra. “I…you actually…” She failed to summon words as she looked towards the devastation Nidhoggr’s body had left behind.

“What, didn’t think I had it in me?” Cat smiled.

“Well…I am impressed,” Mary said. “But I sensed you used the dream to your advantage. That should have let Nidhoggr beat you.”

“There are a few things you still do not understand, little mara,” Huldra said. “The Nidhoggr failed to utilize the dream because it was no longer its dream alone. The Dragon of Yggdrassil has long since forgotten the light and color of the sun.”

Huldra turned again to Catarina. “You did not try to manipulate Nidhoggr’s dream, but you called upon the power of your own. Through will alone you merged your dream with that of the dragon’s, melding the dreamlands together.”

“Can’t really say I know what that means…” Cat said sheepishly. “But it worked!”

“Simply put, your will was stronger than Nidhoggr anticipated.”

“Told it not to underestimate me,” Cat grinned.

“You have done a tremendous thing,” Huldra said. “But if you seek to challenge the Dragon of Yggdrassil again, understand that it will be expecting you, and you will not have the power of the dream behind you. What you fought was a shade of the real thing, a small shadow thrown against the wall, bound by the limits of the dream.”

“I don’t plan to stop,” Cat said. “No matter what. I won because of my dream, and I won’t give it up because I’m scared of a dragon.”

“Then the only advice I can give you before you wake up,” Huldra said. “Is to keep tight hold of that courage, and that dream.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link:  https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=69&sl=850